Let me get this out of the way right from the start: Zorpia does not provide a great social networking experience. It is laden with banner ads that are more prominent than its content, cluttered with an over-abundance of features and buttons, and, while purporting to be a site for “finding friends,” it is pretty obviously skewed towards casual hook-ups. Unless, that is, you’re looking for a long term relationship with someone who sees fit to drop her trousers for a photo on her dating profile.
It also has a dreadful spamming problem that it needs to fix fast. After signing up and, within an hour, receiving three unsolicited emails from Zorpia, I realized that it had auto-subscribed me to receive emails for “general notifications”, “dating app notifications”, “friending app notifications”, “recommendation notifications”, “news from friends”, and “Zorpia product updates”. Unacceptable.
All that aside, I still find Zorpia pretty interesting because: 1) It’s a bootstrapped startup that has so far survived for seven years without any external funding and now claims 25 million registered users, and 2) It is one of the few foreign Internet companies to hold an ICP license for operating in China. Actually, as far as I can tell, the Hong Kong-based company is the only foreign social network to hold the license.
I recently got on Skype with Zorpia founder and CEO Jeffrey Ng, a Hongkonger who got his computer science degree at the University of Illinois, and asked him about the process of getting an ICP license. He told me it took years. For a start, he said, Zorpia needed to set up a company in China, and that process took a full year. He established a shell company in Kunming, Yunnan province, to take care of the China operations. It is that company that must apply for the ICP license.
Getting the license then required reading and signing 80-page contracts. Once the process is complete, eight different government departments have to approve the company every year. In any country, bureaucracy can be a huge headache, but China takes it to a whole new level.
“The problem is the information blockage in China,” Ng told me. “Everybody says different things. Even Mainland Chinese find it so difficult to get things done. You get pushed from official to official and it took us months to figure out who to talk with.”
While the site has been in Mainland China since 2008 and has 2.8 million registered users from there, it was not allowed to make money there without the license, Ng said.
Of course, one of the requirements of the license is that the site comply with government censorship, which is a challenge for a social network that is populated with user-generated content. It is the job of Zorpia’s seven-man team to catch any “inappropriate” content posted to the site, but sometimes the prohibited stuff slips through. When that happens, the authorities are often on the phone demanding prompt action, with the threat that the site would be taken down. Ng suggested that the deadline for responding can be as little as half an hour.
But that’s just the cost of doing business in the world’s largest Internet market. “Coming from Hong Kong, knowing how the Western world runs and at the same being able to speak Chinese and growing up in the Chinese environment, I respect how the Chinese government is running the country,” Ng said. “For any business that wants to survive in China, it’s important that you respect and understand their rules.”
Zorpia, which has 2 million unique users per month, is not a profitable company and makes all its money from advertising. About 40 percent of its users come from India, with 10 percent from China. Those are the markets that Ng is focusing on. Zorpia doesn’t yet have a mobile application, and it is seeking funding.